Deacons for Defense
African-American actor, director, producer and writer Bill Duke first appeared on Broadway in the 1971 Melvin Van Peebles musical “Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death.” He subsequently began to direct several Off-Broadway plays, including "The Secret Place," "Unfinished Women" and "No Place to Be Somebody." He also directed episodes of such noteworthy 1980s television series as "Miami Vice" (1984), "Cagney & Lacey" (1982) and "Hill Street Blues" (1981). Additionally, he helmed a number of made-for-television movies that garnered wide critical acclaim, including “The Killing Floor” (1985) and “A Raisin in the Sun” (1989).
Duke directed his first feature film with the crime drama “A Rage in Harlem” (1991) and followed it up with another impressive crime film, “Deep Cover” (1992). He then directed “The Cemetery Club” (1993) and the comedy sequel, “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (1993).
In front of the camera, the 6' 4" imposing looking actor could be seen in “Car Wash” (1976), “American Gigolo” (1980), “Commando” (1985), “Predator” (1987), “Action Jackson” (1988), “Payback” (1999), “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” (2005) and “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006). He also guest starred in the fourth episode of “Lost” in its third season as Warden Harris and in “Battlestar Galactica” in the season two episode “Black Market.” He played the recurring character of Captain Parish on NBC’s cop drama “Fastlane” (2002-2003; also directed) and played the regular role of the title role's boss, Amos Andrews, on ABC’s series starring Carla Gugino, "Karen Sisco" (2003-2004).
Duke has completed directing (and producing) his upcoming film, “Cover,” a drama/thriller starring Vivica A. Fox and Louis Gossett Jr., and is currently sitting in the director's chair helming his forthcoming drama film, “Not Easily Broken,” adapted from the novel by T.D. Jakes. As an actor, he will be seen alongside Alan Rickman in Alex Winter's comedy film, “We're Here to Help.”
Childhood and Family:
In Poughkeepsie, New York, William Henry Duke Jr. was born on February 26, 1943, to parents Ethel Louise Douglas and William Henry Duke, Sr. He studied theater at the School of Fine Arts, at Boston University, in Boston, Massachusetts, and received his BFA in 1966. He later earned his M.F.A. from the illustrious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
The Killing Floor
New York native Bill Duke started his acting career on a local stage in Le Roi Jones's "Slave Ship" (1969) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. After making his Off-Broadway acting debut with the Negro Ensemble Company in Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence" in 1970, Duke made his Broadway acting debut the following year in Melvin Van Pebbles' musical "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death." The play, which explores the negative aspects of African-American street life and the ghetto experience, also stars Albert Hall, Garrett Morris, and Beatrice Winde. It opened on October 20, 1971, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and then was transferred to the Ambassador for a total run of 325 performances.
In 1972, Duke made his Off-Broadway directing debut with "The Secret Place" by Garrett Morris, and made his TV movie acting debut in ABC’s Afterschool Special “Santiago's Ark.” Not long afterward, he began writing for TV series, starting with CBS’ classic sitcom "Good Times" (1974-1979), starring Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet Jackson. Meanwhile, Duke, who has written and directed numerous off-Broadway plays, won an Adelco Award for the New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of "Unfinished Women."
Duke made his feature film acting debut in Michael Schultz's 1976 comedy “Car Wash” (screenplay by Joel Schumacher), in which he portrayed the young revolutionary Abdullah, alongside Franklyn Ajaye and Ivan Dixon. That same year, he helmed his first short film, “The Hero,” and began directing episodes of the popular primetime television soap opera on CBS, "Knots Landing" (1979-1993), starring Michele Lee, Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark.
The 1980s saw Duke star as a fictional representative of Haley's father, a blacksmith, on Alex Haley's TV series "Palmerstown, U.S.A" (1980-1981) for two seasons and play the villainous gay pimp in writer/director Paul Schrader's feature film “American Gigolo” (1980; starring Richard Gere), which was based on French director Robert Bresson's film “Pickpocket” (1959). He also returned to the director's chair to direct “The Killing Floor,” a $1.5 million-budgeted feature made as the pilot for a 10-part PBS series. The WW I drama, starring Damien Leake, Alfre Woodard, Moses Gunn, Clarence Felder and Dennis Farina, was broadcasted in April 1984, a month after being completed, and eventually received its first theatrical release in March 1992. The feature won Duke a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It also received a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance.
Moviegoers could also catch Duke in two films opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was first seen as a villain in Mark L. Lester's “Commando” (1985) and then as unlucky mercenary "Mac," one of Schwarzenegger's jungle commandos, in John McTiernan's sci-fi action/horror “Predator” (1987). He then directed American Playhouse's “The Meeting” (1989), which focused on a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Back to stage, Duke helmed a Broadway revival of "No Place to Be Somebody" at the Matrix Theater (1987).
Entering the new decade, Duke directed his first feature, “A Rage in Harlem,” based on Chester Himes' novel of the same name. The crime comedy, set in 1956, stars Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover, Robin Givens and Gregory Hines. It also earned Duke a Golden Palm nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. He also played the heavy in John Badham's feature film starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson, “Bird on a Wire.”
After playing a menacing detective in twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes’ directional debut “Menace II Society” (1993), Duke went on to helm “The Cemetery Club” (1993; starring Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis and Diane Ladd), adapted from the comedic play by Ivan Menchell, and the comedy sequel, “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (1993). He also directed “Hoodlum” (1997; starring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth and Andy Garcia; Duke also served as an executive producer), a partially fictional account of the gang war between the Italian/Jewish mafia alliance and the black gangsters of Harlem in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hoodlum later handed Duke a Black Film Award nomination for Best Director at the Acapulco Black Film Festival.
In the late 1990s, Duke directed a two-part story arc of the UPN drama "Legacy" (1998) and returned in front of the camera to play a corrupt Chicago detective in the action film “Payback” (1999; starring Mel Gibson), Brian Helgeland's remake of John Boorman's 1967 noir-classic “Point Blank.” He also had an unaccredited role as a corrupt DEA Agent in Steven Soderbergh's neo-noir crime drama “The Limey” (1999), starring Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán and Peter Fonda.
Duke continued working behind and in front of the camera in the new millennium. After directing “The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery,” an A&E TV-movie starring Timothy Hutton that was based on a Nero Wolfe mystery, he helmed episodes of the CBS medical drama "City of Angels." He then co-starred in Andrzej Bartkowiak's adaptation of John Westermann's novel, “Exit Wounds” (2001; starring Steven Seagal), and played a police chief in Brett Ratner's take on Thomas Harris' thriller novel “Red Dragon” (2002; starring Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins) before directing “Blacktime, Whitenoise” (2002).
From 2002 to 2003, Duke had a recurring role as Captain Bob Parish on the slick MTV-style NBC cop drama "Fastlane" (he also directed) and played the regular role of Amos Andrews, the title role's boss, in the ABC critically beloved, but short-lived, series starring Carla Gugino, "Karen Sisco" (2003-2004). Meanwhile, he won a Black Reel Award for Best Director (Television) for directing the dramatic made-for-television movie “Deacons for Defense” (2004; starring Forest Whitaker).
In 2005, Duke was cast as Levar in six-time Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan's urban drama, “Get Rich or Die Tryin',” a semi-biographical film loosely based on the life of real-life hip hop star Curtis "50 Cent" Johnson, and played Bolivar Trask in the “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Meanwhile, he directed the miniseries “Miracle's Boys” (2005), which earned him a nomination for Best Director – Television at the Black Reel Awards.
Duke has completed directing (and producing) his upcoming drama/thriller film starring Vivica A. Fox and Louis Gossett Jr., “Cover.” He is currently sitting in the director's chair directing his forthcoming drama film adapted from the novel by T.D. Jakes, “Not Easily Broken.” As an actor, he will be seen alongside Alan Rickman in Alex Winter's comedy film, “We're Here to Help.”
Besides acting and directing, Duke, a mentor to young African Americans trying to make it as actors or directors, was also a member of the dramatic jury at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 and a chairperson of Howard University's Radio, TV and Film Department (Washington, DC) in 2000. He has appeared in the music video "Testify" for rap artist Common and in the Busta Rhymes video “Dangerous.”
Black Reel: Television: Best Director, Deacons for Defense, 2004
Sundance Film Festival: Special Jury Prize, Dramatic, The Killing Floor, 1985